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(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/2/2014
As the jam band scene has been evolving, some of the more popular groups are concentrating more on studio recordings for their album releases, while often making available their live performances in different formats.
This week we have the latest recording from one of the most musically sophisticated of the rock jam bands on the scene, Umphrey's McGee. It's titled Similar Skin and it is very much the studio album. But after sometimes attempting to be more like a conventional rock band with shorter studio based songs, Umphrey's are out with an album in which the balance between studio and tendencies toward live jams, came down firmly on the studio-recording side. Thus concentrating their efforts, the album tunes out to be of their best.
Umphrey's McGee got its start on the campus of Notre Dame University in 1997 where members of two different bands on campus came together to start playing, and it soon evolved into a band that has not stopped, with a busy touring schedule and considerable popularity on the jam band circuit. Fans have come to call their blend of art rock sophistication with jam sensibilities "improg." They readily acknowledge their influence by groups like King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa, as well as the Beatles, the Police and more pop-oriented groups. Umphrey's McGee's current personnel includes Brendan Bayliss on guitar and vocals, Joel Cummins on keyboards and vocals, Ryan Stasik on bass, Andy Farag on percussion, Jake Cinninger on guitar and vocals, and Kris Myers on drums and vocals. The group's founding drummer Mike Mirro left the group in about 2002 to attend medical school. He passed away in January 2014, and the group dedicates this album to him.
Umphrey's McGee are one of those groups taking advantage of the Internet and new technology, with making all their concerts available on-line, and playing live sets based on on-line feedback from fans, and recently coming up with what they call "Headphones and Snowcones," with live sound from the mixing console being made available for listening on headphones.
Similar Skin is their first studio album since 2011's Death by Stereo. They again worked with producer/engineer Manny Sanchez, who had also worked in the past with another popular Chicago area band Smashing Pumpkins. The group indicated that Death by Stereo was the first time they had debuted material on a studio album. As very much a live band, their studio albums usually consisted of compositions that had been performed on the road for some time. According to a description of the process behind each of the tunes in an interview with Brendon Bayliss, the material on this album is largely a collection of hybrids, tunes constructed from disparate fragments, or pieces greatly edited from what the band had been playing live, including compositions that go back several years.
The material on the album can get a bit more electric and loud than some of their previous CDs. Bayliss commented that it turned out that way to their surprise, but it was a continuing process as the album was taking shape.
The CD opens with a piece called The Linear. It's a song that had a slow evolution. It was originally an instrumental by Jake Cinninger, which they apparently performed that way, but then Bayliss wanted to add vocals and lyrics. They then had trouble coming up with a song structure. So the tune got put on the back burner for a number of years before it took the current configuration for the new CD. It's in the band's classic progressive rock mode. <<>>
Cut the Cable is another heavier rock track that is kept fairly short. Like The Linear. It's another song that has been evolving for about six or seven years. <<>>
Also in the classic progressive rock mode is No Diablo inspired by the way one's situation changes after the birth of a child. Bayliss said that producer Sanchez cut sections out after they recorded it and then said that it needed a new chorus. After several iterations, the result appears on the album with a more pop-oriented sound and the kind of progressive rock musical twists that keep it interesting. <<>>
The title track Similar Skin is one of the album's highlights. Bayliss said that the song was the fusing together of two different jam segments that the band had been performing live, with a new set of lyrics for the occasion about the things that bring people together. <<>>
Another of the lengthier pieces is Puppet String whose lyrics are a kind of discussion between a religious believer and an agnostic. It's another creative piece which in this case started out as a bass guitar riff on which the other band members began to jam forming a tune. <<>>
The song called Educated Guess is another of the pieces that are composites of different segments that were from completely different songs. It becomes another good piece showing the progressive rock side of Umphrey's McGee. Bayliss says that the lyrics are about prescription sleep aids and sleepwalking. It's the only track on the album with some outside musicians. <<>>
The closest thing to a laid-back sounding piece on this energetic album is a song called Loose Ends which at time can evoke Sixties pop like the Beatles. <<>>
The CD ends with its lengthiest track, Bridgeless, which is a regular part of their performances as a jam in five parts. Bayliss said that they had difficulty getting the parts to work together in the studio so they recorded the sections separately each time doing five takes and putting a composite together. It works well in as a progressive rock suite and is another of the album's best tracks. <<>>
Umphrey's McGee's new eighth studio album Similar Skin for me represents the band going all out for the kind of studio album that reflects the band's musical tendencies, rather than being a jam band squeezed into a studio setting. It's a more uniformly electric album than some of their previous, but they do take advantage of the opportunities offered by the studio to emphasize their compositional aspect, and with producer Manny Sanchez, go for an album more like a classic-style progressive rock recording. And at that they succeed well. The material is interesting and the band is in very good form.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A," with rather clean sound despite the very electric instrumentation. The dynamic range is also better than many mainstream rock albums, with CD capturing some of the ebb and flow of the music without excessive compression.
Umphrey's McGee remains rather distinctive in their combination of jam band qualities with the sophistication of a progressive rock ensemble. Their new CD underscores that reputation.
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